My Issues With Maternity Leave In South Africa

According to South African labour law’s basic guide to maternity leave, Pregnant women may take 4 months of maternity leave, starting 1 month before their due date. When I was pregnant with Knox, my employer at the time tried to force me to go on maternity leave at 37 weeks pregnant.

This did not sit well with me as I wanted to work right up to the very end so that I will have more time with my newborn. Unfortunately, a twisted turn of events saw me put on bed rest – and my son was born a little more than a month early. This opened the door to a whole new set of issues…  

  First of all, a few weeks of my maternity leave was wasted on bed rest, secondly, when I was due to return to work – my son would only be 3-months old – and being a premie, he would technically only be almost 2 months old.

Being a premature baby meant that he needed a little more love and care, and having had such a traumatic birth experience – I needed more time with him and more time to heal. There was no way that I was ready to go back to work, and my employer and I came to a mutual agreement to end my contract.  

Unfortunately, UIF payments are not nearly enough to cover all expenses – and we ended up getting into quite a bit of debt… debt that took us years to get out of. I know so many moms that need to take out loans in order to cover their living expenses during maternity leave, and it is not the greatest way to start your life with a new expanded family.  

Even if your maternity leave only kicks in after the birth of your baby, four months is not nearly enough time to bond with a newborn (you can read my article on bonding issues with my first child here). Also, many women cannot afford to not receive a salary for that amount of time and are thus forced to go back to work earlier. You can claim from UIF, but like I said – the amount you receive is nothing short of a joke… at least it is better than nothing I suppose. I have asked the opinions of a couple of South Africans through various social media network platforms as well as forums – most of the feedback is pretty much on par with how I feel, but some of the comments just blew my freakin’ mind.  

According to Economist Dawie Roodt – longer maternity leave is not an option for South Africa. “The current duration is far too much already. When the politicians start to force the employer to keep a position open for a longer period for an employee, they are essentially penalizing and taxing the employer,” – I wonder if Mr Roodt has children, or how long his wife took maternity leave? He then went on to make the following statement – “When UIF is being paid out for a longer period, it means someone else is paying for you to be on maternity leave.”

Okay, I understand, but I am paying for prisoners to receive a meal and a bed every night for killing/raping/murdering/stealing or whatever. Let’s not even talk about Nklandla or our presidents’ wives’ lavish lifestyles and spending habits.

I am paying a small fortune towards a government that is crumbling and that has become a source of comic relief to us. Surely, paying me a descent UIF is a small price to pay compared to all the money we fork out that seems to disappear into thin air.  

A senior policy consultant at the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Pietman Roos, said if maternity leave was extended, employing women would be seen as a risk to companies. “It’s a cost factor. It would ultimately affect the chances of getting a job for all women,” he said. I’m sorry, does that not constitute as discrimination? Why are we being punished for having babies?  

Many women referred to the Pick n Pay model which allows eleven months of maternity leave, nine of which are paid. The retailer gives fathers eight days’ paternity leave, even though labour legislation does not make specific allowance for leave for new fathers. If the mother and father both work at Pick n Pay, they can share the maternity leave. That is amazing! Makro is not far behind, offering employers nine months paid maternity leave.  

South Africa abides by the ILO Convention 183, which states that a woman is entitled to maternity leave of no less than 14 weeks, but the country has not taken up a recommendation to extend maternity leave to at least 18 weeks. Sweden is the most generous when it comes to parental leave – mothers and fathers can share 16 months at home with their baby. At least we are not in Tunisia, which offers the shortest maternity leave of just one month.  

My Issues with Maternity Leave in South AfricaIssue

#1: Four Months Is Not Enough Time  

Four months is not nearly enough time with a new baby, and it is definitely not enough time for your body to heal. It took about 2-years for my body to get back to normal after I had our daughter – I am not at all saying we need two years maternity leave, but you can imagine how much strain it will put on your body going back to work after just three/four months.

Most moms suggested that six months would be sufficient time for them while others brought up the models of Canada and Sweden which allows parents to take up to a year maternity leave to be split between parents as they see fit. You also get those superhuman beings like Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo who went back to work only two weeks after giving birth to her first child, but I am not going to give my opinion on that one.

I feel like after four months you are just getting used to being a mom, and then you have to leave your baby and go to work… it is quite cruel. Needless to say, this becomes more tricky if you have a premature baby or if your baby is seriously ill.

Issue #2: Breast Is Best?  

Our country goes above and beyond to promote breastfeeding for as long as possible and mothers are shamed and looked down upon for turning to formula, but in all honesty – do we have a choice? I have never worked for or even heard of a company in South Africa where there were any breastfeeding or pumping facilities, never mind breast milk storage facilities.

I remember when I had Mikayla my only choice was to sit in a unisex bathroom and pump, which for hygienic reasons weren’t feasible – I could also just imagine how people would freak out if I stored my breast milk next to their lunch in the fridge. Some moms are comfortable sitting in a boardroom or a break room pumping away, I am not – the thought that someone can walk through the door at any second stresses me out. Stress and breast milk supply do not go well together.

Some mothers master the art of pumping and can exclusively pump for their babies outside of working hours, unfortunately my milk supply has never been enough to do that and I had to switch to formula soon after I returned to work to meet my baby’s demands (believe me, I tried every tonic and milk supply booster you can imagine).  

Issue #3: Baby Care  

I found it impossible to find a daycare that I would or could leave my son at 3 months old… Most daycares only take babies from six month onwards. I was lucky enough to have my mother-in-law around, but not everyone has that luxury. How can you return to work and not be comfortable about leaving your baby somewhere… how can you concentrate at work or give 100% when your mind is occupied by the most important thing in your life being in the care of someone you do not know?

It’s heartbreaking to leave your three-month-old baby at a crèche. I believe companies should strive to create daycare facilities at work.    

Issue #4: Affordability  

I am not an unreasonable person, I completely understand that many small companies cannot afford to pay their employees four-six months maternity leave, but I did not work for a small company and I was not getting a cent. Many moms rush back to work before four months of leave because they are unable to sustain their families on their benefits.… there is no way that I could live off the money that UIF was willing to pay out to me.

I feel that we pay so much towards tax, PAYE, UIF and whatever other nonsense… so much towards a system that is completely and utterly flawed. The UIF payout should be more, shouldn’t it? Also, there should be some sort of a system where bigger companies are judged on and should legally be paying you a percentage of your salary?

What do you think? They should at least cover a portion of your maternity leave, whether it is a month or two paid or whether it is a percentage every month. Once again, are we being punished for having babies?  

Issue #5: Paternity Leave  

In South Africa we do not have Paternity leave per say, we have what they call Family Responsibility Leave which entitles a father to three days off work…. Three days.

My husband had the luxury to take a week being as he was self-employed at the time, but he said he does not know how he would have handled not being able to spend some time with his new born child. Three days is just pathetic. It is just as important for a father to bond with his child, also, in the event of a cesarean who is going to help mom at home?  

Issue #6: People Who Can’t or Won’t Have Kids and Their Senseless Arguments  

I had a couple of responses from men and women who do not wish to or cannot have children, who state that four months maternity leave is “way too much” and unfair towards them as they should also be offered four months leave of some sorts.

To these men and women, it is extremely obvious that you do not have children or can’t even comprehend what it is like – maternity leave is not a holiday. First and foremost, you are recovering from a medical condition. Secondly, you do not get to sleep in, relax or have loads of time for yourself… there will be days where your husband comes home to find you on the couch with your baby in your arms, covered in baby vomit, breast milk and drool – sobbing because you have not had the time to change out of your pajamas or have a shower in the past couple of days.

Thirdly, maternity leave is a time to invest in your family’s future. So shhh your face and sit back down.    

Know Your Rights – Maternity Leave and the Law:

  • As a mom you’re entitled to at least four consecutive months maternity leave.
  • Maternity leave could start four weeks before the expected date of birth.
  • If you get ill while working, you could, on medical advice, take maternity leave earlier and for longer if necessary.
  • No employee may be expected to work for the first six weeks after the birth of her baby. A medical practitioner or midwife may, however, certify that you’re fit to work.
  • If you have suffered a miscarriage during the third trimester of pregnancy or your child is stillborn, you are entitled to maternity leave for six weeks after the miscarriage or stillbirth, whether or not you were on maternity leave at the time of the miscarriage or stillbirth.
  • Your employer is not legally obliged to pay you during your maternity leave period unless the company’s policy, a collective agreement, or your employment contract provides for paid maternity leave.
  • If your maternity leave is unpaid, you would be able to claim from the Unemployment Insurance Fund UIF for up to 17 weeks (four months).
  • If an employer refuses to allow an employee to return to work after she’s taken maternity leave to which she was entitled, the law regards this as dismissal. Furthermore, it’s unfair dismissal. The law states that dismissal on account of an employee’s pregnancy, intended pregnancy, or any reason related to the pregnancy amounts to an automatically unfair dismissal.

What do you think of maternity leave in South Africa? How would you like it to improve? What was your experience like?(This is an old post of mine that I have updated to reflect my current feelings as a mother of a premie baby)

10 thoughts on “My Issues With Maternity Leave In South Africa

  1. Zoe Hawkins says:

    it also makes me a bit crazy, although it’s even worse in other places. At least here, all companies have to abide by the 4 month thing – in the States, you could be expected back at work the next day.
    I agree that it isn’t nearly long enough, and that if corruption and other issues were stamped out we could easily afford to pay better UIF for a much longer time. I really wish we had better maternity and paternity leave policies as current ones really tend to favor the rich. I’m lucky enough to work for a tiny company that continued to pay me during my 4 months of leave, and a husband who could support us anyway, but it really is impossible for people who have to go back to work. Plus, even if you do find an okay creche for your 3-4 month old baby, have you seen how much it costs?! for many moms, it’s actually more cost effective to stay home!

  2. Megan Keith says:

    Thank you for sharing this! We adopted our son, and i soon found out that there is no law for maternity leave for adoptive moms. I was horrified! It is at the discretion of the company, and i was only offered 4 weeks, and a portion of my salary. How was i supposed to bond with my new baby, in only 4 weeks? Something has got to changE!

  3. Ivana g says:

    Dear maz, I follow your blog from croatia, and i must say even our countries differ in great manner, maternity is universal (issue). I enjoy your blog and I’ve found many similarities between our way of thinking, worries and concerns… regarding this post, we have maternity leave from six months to one year (three years for twins or third child) and still i was desperate when i had to leave my child for work. noone understand the bond between the mother and a child and those who deliberately chose not to have a baby should just shut up. I hope your government would be more supportive for mums and dads. Four months is not nearly enough. it is really ironic, with all these studies that promote attached parenting, long-term breastfeeding and being exclusively with your childup to age 3. what can i say…. i hope things will get better for you soon.

    • Maz says:

      Hi Ivana

      Wow, Croatia! Such a gorgeous place. I totally agree with you. And thank you so much for reading and leaving a comment. I really hope all our world leaders would wake up soon… maybe we need more female presidents 😉

  4. Claire says:

    I came across this article, at 39 weeks pregnant and stressed to tears because I am about to go Into arrears on my accounts. I have to do a partial claim of 25% from uif and I am told I will only be paid at the end of next month. My salary this month will barely cover my accounts and expenses with nothing left for groceries, petrol or anything my baby may need. My partner does not work and I cover all household expenses which is the reason I am indebted in the first place. Yet I have always managed to pay debt and keep a good credit record. I feel so defeated and that I wish I had known this before deciding to keep this child. I cannot even afford this child. I am so stressed out in this last week of pregnancy.

    • Maz says:
    • Hi Claire… I really understand how you feel. Life is so expensive. Somehow we always find a way, don’t give up. On most of your accounts you can phone them and explain your situation – they are more understanding than you might thing. I did this, and on a lot of them there is an option to freeze the account for about three months or so. You can also always look at going under debt review?

  5. Raeesa says:

    Wow! I met you at the CT Blogger meet up this past Saturday for the first time and I’m so glad I did! This post is amazing and I can see why it went viral 😊

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